iSugio

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold – Review

by Dane Benko

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The movie starts with Zatoichi coming across a folk celebration of villagers in Joshu, happy to have collected for themselves 1000 ryu to pay off an outstanding tax payment after years of drought had ruined the local economy.  Zatoichi is happy to take a break from his trip to pay respects one year after the death of Kichizo, but his presence in the village doesn’t necessarily turn out to be the best for the villagers and Zatoichi alike.  As is Zatoichi’s habit, he manages to have stumbled across another conspiracy which will take some time for the wily swordsman to unravel.

For as the gold is in transit to the Intendant Gundayu, a mysterious group of bandits lead by the scarfaced ronin Jushiro ambushes the carriers intending to steal the gold.  The box tumbles down the hill and is found by none other than Zatoichi himself, sitting on it at Kichizo’s grave.  For this coincidence, Zatoichi is blamed for the theft, as well as Boss Chuji in the mountains, a local leader whose backstory is introduced in the festival song sung by the villagers.

So now Zatoichi is out to defend his and Boss Chuji’s name, at which point opposing Boss Monji rises up and gathers soldiers to further discredit and defeat Chuji.  Turns out Monji’s scheme may not be too disconnected from the gold theft, of course.  Lastly, village leader Seiemon is put under scrutiny by Intendant Gundayu, creating a sort of lateral trifecta: Gundayu, Monji, and Shujiro versus Seiemon, Chuji, and Zatoichi.

Despite these various relationships, the story in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is much thinner than in previous installments.  New director to the series Kazuo Ikehiro seems much more interested in stylistic flourish and action choreography than most of what we’ve come to expect from the narrative style of the series, even to the detriment of Zatoichi’s character development.  Zatoichi doesn’t seem to really show anything more of what we haven’t seen before, and the bosses’ schemes don’t even seem that well-thought out.  Worse, the movie feels at points incomplete or cut short.  Zatoichi jumps from area to area with little to no transition elements, the standard evil lady character of Ogin completely disappears after who two scenes on screen, and the standard innocent lady character of Kichizo’s sister Chiyo sort of only appears on the marginalia of the narrative.  I don’t know the history of this production but I would not be surprised if there were several major scenes cut out of the final edit.

What this episode does introduce to the world of the franchise, however, is a new sort of iconic villain in Shujiro, with an arced scar over his right eye and a smarting bullwhip.  Boss Chuji is also a different sort of boss, a worn and bedraggled local hero who is desperately trying to survive with dwindling resources and men, though those left behind are quite devoted.  Unfortunately both of them are one-dimensional.  Shujiro seems to have no further motivation than pure desire to be a jerk, and Chuji’s backstory hardly holds up the broader question of what his importance is to the narrative or why we care other than he’s the good boss, sort of.  After he disappears, his story is completely forgotten.

The result is something of a tossaway for the series.  Hopefully it’s not an indication of further degradation, and Ikehiro’s return for the next movie may give him a chance to redeem himself.  The thing is that his eye for broad cinematic sweeps and stylish staging means that he just needs a stronger story to make a better movie.  In some places the staging and editing seem almost avant-garde, and as the movie hops around three different narratives, it doesn’t lose track of its focus, it only loses track of a few characters.

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Author: Dane Benko

Dane is an independent filmmaker and freelancer in Albuquerque, NM. Japanese cinema is a particular fascination of his.

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